20 Aug 2017 - by A4ID

How to overcome the inevitable

According to a 2011 survey by the European Union, 20 per cent of the population of the EU believe that climate change is the single greatest problem facing the world, while over half think it is one of the most serious problems, second only to poverty.

However at the same time only 21 per cent of these same people felt that it was “their own responsibility to tackle climate change” with most believing that it was national governments who bore the full responsibility. Interestingly, 57 per cent German citizens saw business and industry as being responsible as compared to only 16 per cent in the UK.

So the court of public opinion has spoken – the threat of global warming is serious, almost on a par with extreme poverty, but it’s ‘not my problem’.

I like to think of myself as someone who is green in terms of life choices (I cycle, recycle, upcycle) but even those who are less engaged in the issues are aware of the melting glaciers, desertification, sinking islands. But what of the more immediate impacts on human life?

At A4ID’s recent Climate Change knowledge group meeting, “High price for a loaf of bread”, our speaker Rob Bailey from Chatham House gave a fascinating and comprehensive insight into the shorter-term ramifications of our environmental crisis. And it’s pretty bleak.

Access to food and water are recognised fundamental human rights but 1.4 billion people currently live in poverty without enough access to food, and one billion do not have access to clean drinkable water.

And the situation is set to get worse as global warming exacerbates the existing struggles for access to water and arable land. Not necessarily resulting in international conflict (not immediately, anyway) but certainly in intra-national conflict; that is, civil war.

While not claiming that hikes in food prices are the only cause of civil unrest, the two are linked. And as the climate changes, rain falls erratically, crops fail and agriculturalists head to the cities thereby further reducing the production of food, the situation looks set to deteriorate further.

A rising population coupled with decreasing resources may seem like the ingredients for imminent war, but the message from the knowledge group meeting was that we can still thwart what may seem to be inevitable.

That there are always going to be winners and losers is inevitable, but having in place a solid legal framework which codifies the international community’s commitment to halting the practices which cause climate change will demand compliance with the standards regulating ‘good’ development and make illegal ‘bad’ practices.

The current framework, however, is inadequate – a “spaghetti bowl” (to quote Rob Bailey) of non-legally binding instruments which demonstrate a will but not the way for ensuring consensus on action. The legal profession therefore have a key role to play in developing a solid legal framework and ensuring its implementation.

And consensus is much needed. If we are going to tackle climate change collectively, we have to change the current unsustainable focus on growth. As the UK NGO’s Joint Rio Narrative states, “Humanity faces critical decisions”.  At the heart of the Stakeholder Forum’s submission to the Rio+20 Conference is the notion that the current model of growth is unsustainable. And unjust. “We” the developed world profit, “they” don’t.

A4ID was invited to attend the ICE Coalition & Stakeholder Forum Conference hosted by DLA Piper to discuss the creation of an International Court of the Environment (ICE) at which the overarching moral cry was for ‘climate justice’ and the practical message was for the more effective managing of energy resources.

Though contrary to the results of the European poll regarding responsibility, Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration calls on the “participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level.” And a key theme at the ICE conference was ensuring access to information by citizens. Just as the fight against corruption is ensured by the active participation of citizens demanding transparency and accountability of their politicians, so the fight against climate change is assisted greatly by “access to information.”

But what good is information if separate groups use it for separate goals? That “things need to change” is not a sufficiently productive consensus. There needs to be an action plan and this is exactly what the submission of the NGO Joint Narrative sets out under its umbrella goal of “The Green and Fair Economy”.

Their proposed initiatives include; sustainable management of natural resources and capitals, a Declaration on Planetary Boundaries (“the thresholds that we must respect in order to maintain the sustainability of our planet”), fiscal reform (the introduction of a green tax or the polluter pays principle) and A Convention on Corporate Sustainability (whereby a business must report on the environmental effects of its actions). Implementing these initiatives will mean an overhaul of current business and political practice and this is why it is so important that stakeholder (you, me, us) action takes place.

That 21 per cent of respondents realise that it is up to them to bring change needs to increase to 100 per cent. We not only need to continue with the micro (recycling, turning the heating down etc), but also lobby governments to do the macro, namely the proactive reform and by funding ground breaking initiatives such as ICE and alternatives for energy storage. Lord Giddons spoke persuasively on both these issues, adding to his list of “what we can do” being that we need to totally transform the way we live.

A big ask. But perhaps the most pertinent message to arise from the conference, for me anyway, was that we are stewards of this earth. A4ID works with lawyers and development professionals who see it as part of their duty to work towards the eradication of poverty. Similarly, we have a responsibility to protect our earth, a “living being” as Polly Higgins, barrister and proponent of introducing a law against Ecocide (which would criminalise environmental damage), reminded.

The earth together with its inhabitants are living beings with an intrinsic value, one that is not based on economic value, and we all have a duty to respect, protect, remedy. Mostly because it’s the right thing to do.

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